What is Tantra? 4 Essentials of a Deeply Misunderstood Path

The Tantric image from Cave 465, Dunhuang. Yuan dynasty.

It’s not a blowjob with a candle in the background.

Tantra, (the adjective form is “Tantric”, like “Tantric Sex”) is a wisdom tradition that makes you blossom into the best possible version of yourself. When you practice Tantra, your soul expands.

When practiced over time, you become radiant, vibrant, and everything seems to shimmer with beauty and divinity. You magnetize people and abundance simply because you are so incredibly alive and full of joy.

If you want to drink deeply from the well of life, this is the path for you.

In 2014, I first discovered Tantra through a random Youtube video. Though it was a profound moment, I didn’t immediately jump on board. In fact, it began an internal conflict that lasted for years.

My head said, “This is the most stupid, New-Agey bullshit I’ve ever heard of,” and my heart said, “I will do ANYTHING have it in my life.”

Eventually, I pushed through my resistant dabbling and took real a chance on Tantra. And it was the best thing that ever happened to me.

Through a regular practice of Tantric exercises, I learned to see the world (and myself) for the sacred, conflicted, perfectly imperfect manifestation of the Divine that it truly is.

What is Tantra? Turns out that it comes from something we all know and love.

In its most simple definition, it’s a form of non-postural yoga. Though most people in the West think of yoga as warping yourself into a pretzel on a mat, postural yoga (classically referred to as Hatha Yoga) is only one of a whole suite of different styles of yoga, some with physical postures and some without.

However, there’s far more to Tantra than what’s offered at your yoga studio around the corner. It’s a complex and nuanced path, but here are 4 of the key things to know.

  1. We don’t know much about Tantra.

The original form of Tantra, or Classical Tantra, had its heyday from roughly 500CE to 1500CE in India. It lived alongside other forms of yoga and Vedic traditions and was essentially wiped out by Muslim invaders. Though it was a popular tradition in its time, the West doesn’t know much about it even today.

Most of its scriptures were destroyed or naturally decayed. India’s hot, humid climate is prone to destroying ancient artifacts, so the fact that we have any texts at all is pretty remarkable. However, academics haven’t had the resources to translate most of the texts we do have from the original Sanskrit, so our knowledge base of Classical Tantra is still rather small.

Despite all this, Tantra has become increasingly popular in the West. Though original material is relatively scarce, the practices and philosophies that remain have been repeatedly interpreted and transformed to meet the needs of our time and our culture, creating a beautiful new tradition specifically for the 20th and 21st centuries.

2. There is more than one kind of Tantra.

Today there are essentially two kinds of Tantra. The first is Classical Tantra. It remains close to the original sources with practices like chanting mantras, meditating on consciousness, and ritual worship.

Though hotly debated by scholars, sex as a spiritual practice was probably not a big part of Classical Tantra. If you read between the lines there may have been one or two practices, but it was definitely not the focus.

The second is Neo-Tantra. It has new practices that address our modern concerns beautifully. Within Neo-Tantra, you’ll find practices like genital massage, manipulation of sexual energy, and breathwork. If you see something today labeled just “Tantra”, it’s probably this second kind.

Neo-Tantra focuses on sexuality far more than Classical Tantra. Though each Tantric practitioner will have their own opinion on why that is, I believe Neo-Tantra incorporates significant sexuality because it’s one of the most difficult areas in modern peoples’ lives.

One kind of Tantra is not better than the other. Both are profound and both will help you spiritually awaken. If you want to learn more about Classical Tantra check out Christopher Wallis . If you want to learn more about Neo Tantra check out Osho. If you want to learn more about a blend between the two, check out my work.

3 . Tantra focuses on the stuff most spiritual traditions gloss over. (Like sex, power, and money.)

Tantra deals with the messy stuff head on. Though spiritual traditions can help you with most areas of life, there are some subjects that are conveniently skipped or glossed over by most. In contrast, Tantra has a whole suite of practices and concepts to wrestle with wealth, empowerment, sexuality, death, and similarly sticky issues.

Though there were many schools within Classical Tantra, the form that inspires Neo-Tantra was extremely counter-cultural. This school had female leaders, allowed members of any caste (or no caste, including foreigners) to join, worshipped in cremation grounds, and did other extremely taboo stuff. Even though a lot of the specific practices have changed, this challenging of the taboo is one of the primary markers of a Tantric practice.

By focusing on these difficult topics explicitly and turning them into an avenue for spiritual growth, it becomes easier for the Tantric practitioner to relate to unpleasantness in an empowered way. It gives the spaciousness necessary to transform things like trauma and suffering into opportunities for healing and growth.

4. The core of Tantra is the idea that everything is sacred

There are many branches, paths, and historical periods within Tantra. However, the core of this path is an embodied worldview that sees everything is sacred. Anger, anxiety, suffering, fecal matter, sex, bad jobs, death, rot, all of it is part of the divine Universe. Anything that is is inherently holy simply because it exists.

Here’s a little thought-exercise.

  1. Think of some of the rough patches in your life. The soul-sucking jobs. The heart-breaking moments.
  2. Think of how these experiences taught you something, had positive elements, or in some way transformed you into the person you are today. If any gratitude or bittersweet emotions or thoughts pop up, just notice them.
  3. Think of some of the best, most joy-filled moments of your life. Your wedding day. The moment you won the big game. The promotion you worked so hard for.
  4. Think of how these moments had an element of terror to them. Your new spouse will someday die or might cheat. Your new position has challenging, new responsibilities that are overwhelming. If any feelings of heaviness or mixed emotions pop up, just notice them.

“Everything is sacred,” can be a difficult thing to wrap your head around. However, it is possible to achieve an experiential understanding of this through Tantric meditations and practices. Like the one below.

This process shows how there is always light in the darkest of darks. There is always dark in the lightest of lights. Everything in between is a unique, fascinating blend of experience. The deeper into Tantra you go, the more this becomes less of a thought-exercise and a bones-deep transmission.

Tantra is a path of recognizing the beauty in the ugly, honoring the ugly in the beauty, and embracing the entire spectrum of existence.

Everything is sacred. And Tantra can show you how.

I help people rediscover awe and wonder through sexual and spiritual healing. Find resources and more at michellegarfinkel.com.

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